I have written a few bits of “rapid reaction” to a recent article on military reform and Fourth Generation Warfare.
Critics: Pentagon in blinders
Long before 9/11, the military was warned about low-tech warfare, but it didn’t listen
By Stephen J. Hedges
June 6, 2005
WASHINGTON — Nearly 16 years ago, a group of four military officers and a civilian predicted the rise of terrorism and anti-American insurgencies with chilling accuracy.
The group said U.S. military technology was so advanced that foreign forces would be unlikely to challenge it directly, and it forecast that future foes would be non-state insurgents and terrorists whose weapons would be suicide car bombs, not precision-guided weapons.
“Today, the United States is spending $500 million apiece for stealth bombers,” the group wrote in a 1989 article that appeared in a professional military journal. “A terrorist stealth bomber is a car with a bomb in the trunk–a car that looks like every other car.”
The five men dubbed their theory “Fourth Generation Warfare” and warned that the U.S. military had to adapt. In the years since, the original group of officers, joined by a growing number of officers and scholars within the military, has pressed Pentagon leaders to acknowledge this emerging threat. More…
Here’s a link to that 1989 article. Amazing how in the world of journalism a 16-yr-old article can be new news. Check out other stuff on the d-n-i.net website. The folks there are mainly hold-outs from the military reform movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s. They are “followers”–in the best sense, and sometimes the worst–of the late USAF Col. John Boyd.
This article galvinizes many of my frustrations with those folks, especially their contradictions, pessimism, and opportunism. Though I agree with a good number of their ideas, they also have a lot of problems. Let me
address some of those here.
1) There is the argument that the reformers warned but were not listened to by Pentagon leadership, but that the “grunts” on the ground are following their advice anyway. A couple problems: A) Reformers also claim credit for the switch in Army doctrine to a manuever strategy with the publication of doctrinal manual 100-5 in 1982. Additionally, they claim credit for the entire overhaul of Marine Corps doctrine in the 1980s. Finally, they relish the fact that John Boyd’s OODA loop theory is now widely accepted within the military. So which is it? Were they listened to, or not? Do they only get to claim credit when things go well (i.e. their way) but no responsibility when they don’t? B) If it is indeed true that grunts and their leaders are not on the same page, is that REALLY a good thing for our war effort? Which war are the reformers more concerned to fight: the war in Iraq or their own political battle within DOD?
2) They have never met a technology they didn’t dislike…unless, of course, it’s one of their own. First, their rhetoric displays a naive technological determinism which argues that a technology can do only what it was designed for and nothing else. If a weapon was deisnged with conventional war in mind, well then that’s all it can do. But look at the use of the B-52 literally for close air support of special forces in Afghanistan. There is more “interpretive flexibility” than they admit. Rather, they hold the A-10 up as the best example of a “good” technology because it is “low-tech” (whatever that is taken to mean) and cheap. But the A-10, as specialized as it is, is probably much less flexible than most other systems.
And this is part of the problem. They are critical of virtually all technology (including, apparently, from the article, humvees now as well) without a clear standard for deciding what is a good technology and what is a bad technology. Their only standards for good seem to be low-tech and cheap. But, their definitions and measures of both of those are far from adequate.
Contradiction: They call for more “knowledge” of the enemy and ourselves but are then critical of surveillance systems, drones, and IT which helps in achieving that goal. Are we supposed to use divination to locate the enemy and keep track of our own forces?
Contradiction: They are critical of anything “hi-tech” but never get tired of pointing out that their guru, John Boyd, was the “father” of both the F-16 and the F-15. Hmmmm…they seem pretty hi-tech to me.
Contradiction: They were critical of Vietnam-era PPBS, operations research, the rise of the “defense intellectuals,” and the technocratic approach to war planning and fighting. Yet, Boyd’s OODA loop theory is none other than a cybernetic feedback model which fits nicely within the what Keller calls the “cybersciences” which emerged during and after WWII–i.e. operations research, systems theory, cybernetics, etc. Boyd is just as much a product of his era as McNamara, PPBS, et al.
3) The first Gulf War was not a victory argument: Here again, willing to take credit for the good, but no responsibility for the bad. Boyd’s followers like to cite Coram’s biography of Boyd to argue that the massive flanking manuever undertaken by U.S. forces was the result of Boyd’s advice to Dick Cheney, a former member of the reform movement himself. Apparenlty, according to Coram, Schwarzkopf was going to go straight up the middle, incurring a lot of casualties, because he, like everyone else, was the product of a system that wasn’t as smart as Boyd. Cheney, sensing that this was a bad plan, called Boyd for advice, who came up the the flanking idea. As the story goes, Cheney forced this on the less-imaginative Schwarzkopf. Of course, this manuever, the main ground action of the war, was brilliant because it was supposedly Boyd’s idea. Everything else was a failure apparently.
4) “Largely conventional” forces in Afghanistan? First, the article ignores the contribution Kennedy made to strengthening special forces by arguing that his orders were brushed aside, and then, as another, necessary follow-on “present absence” (see Derrida on “present absences”) which allows this story to continue, the special forces are conveniently written out of the history of Afghanistan. The main operation to take down the Taliban was anything but a conventional operation.
5) Reformers have been critical of the Pentagon’s slowness in armoring humvees, but now it seems that they think soldiers shouldn’t be riding in them anyway. They should be out and about in the neighborhoods. I’m glad we spent millions on armor that it seems they don’t want to be used now.
6) In one breath the article is arguing that after Gulf War I the Congress kept on spending gobs of money on new, hi-tech systems. But then, a page later, it seems to be complaining that Afghanistan and Iraq have been fought with the same systems as Gulf War I. Which is it? Did we or didn’t we spend a bunch of money on new systems? It’s not a hard question. The second option is largely correct. We have not acquired many new large-scale weapons systems. We have the F-22 and the F-35 coming on line, but the Crusader and Commanche have been cut, for example. The big gains in technology have not been in weapons systems as much as they have been in command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and
7) So what are the solutions they offer? Well, as usual, there aren’t many. One solution is to take money from DOD and give it to Treasury, State, etc. How is that MILITARY reform? It’s not. Next, they propose smaller, more agile units. Great! That’s already being done, as this article mentions. Finally, we come to Lind’s recommendations…well…he doesn’t have any. In his mind, we’ve already lost! I’ve been catching up on all my Star Wars watching lately and this reminds me of the oft-heard phrase from C3PO, “We’re doomed!” Thanks, but we’re in a war and that’s not very helpful!
But this pessimism towards our prospects is the result of an optimism, and optimism in insurgent, guerrilla tactics as the perfect, virtually unbeatable strategy. In the writings of the reformers, we are constantly told what a threat guerrilla tactics are, how effective they are, but rarely what, if anything, can be done to defeat them. Typically, the best they can offer is “soft power” solutions like cultural sensitivity, language training, PSYOPS, deception, and more effective use of media.
Indeed, here’s yet one more contradiction. They note in that now famous article from 16 years ago that insurgents will seek to defeat us by bypassing the miltiary and the state by attacking our domestic population’s will to fight directly through the media, that this will be a main tactic of the enemy. They were correct in this. But, if that is the case, why are they allowing their criticism, including the view that we have already lost, to be published in our media on June 6? Has their cultural sensitivity for what that date means here failed them? Don’t they recognize that they are helping the enemy’s media campaign to erode our will to fight with such an article? Again, which war are they more interested in? The real war on terror, or their own political battle?
And if media is a main weapon of a “fourth generation” adversary, then aren’t they acting as traitors? Isn’t their article treason? Aye, there’s the rub in privileging deception, media tactics, etc. It raises the question of whether a manuever tactic is appropriate to this level of conflict. It is one thing to be opportunistic about changing your position rapidly to attack the enemy from multiple points asynchronously on the battlefield. But does that work and is it ethical in the realm of domestic political conflict such as this? Rhetorically, the reformers have been opportunistic, flexible, adaptible; but often it just makes them seem as though they are being merely oppositional, or worse, contradictory. In an ethical sense, one can see that if their rhetoric about the power of deception, PSYOPS, media, etc. was really taken as seriously as they would like, then it would open ample ground for censorship. If we really applied their paradigm, this article, and many of their others, would be treason.
Don’t get me wrong. I find a lot of what Boyd and the reformers had to say very interesting and useful, and I have been very sympathetic to them in various papers I have written. But, like I say, there are some contradictions and tendencies towards political opportunism and pssimism that I find annoying.